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False Confessions: Can Psychological Theories Improve Interrogation Techniques?

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A false confession is an admission to a crime that the confessor did not commit. The February 2010 edition of the Law and Human Behavior journal, released by the American-Psychology Law Society, has an interesting “white paper” (a report that addresses issues and makes suggestions on how to solve them) on police-induced confessions (Abstract).

The authors of this study review current police interrogation methods and laws surrounding admissibility of confession evidence in court. They apply their awareness of psychological principles to examine false confessions.

There are several reasons why false confessions may occur:

  • Suspect Characteristics (adolescence, intellectual disability, mental illness, and certain personality traits)
  • Interrogation Tactics (excessive interrogation time, presentation of false evidence, and minimization)
  • Phenomenology of Innocence (tendency to waive Miranda rights)

(Kassin, et al., 2010, p. 3)

False confessions are especially relevant to the reform of the criminal justice system: 25% of wrongful convictions that have been overturned by DNA evidence had a false confession as part of the original evidence. At least nine of the individuals that have been exonerated after wrongful conviction have involved death penalty sentencing after a false confession. Of course, DNA evidence is not available for every crime, so we can never know for sure how many people have been served time in prison, or, even worse, been executed for crimes they did not commit.

Proponents of the death penalty would argue that the good that comes out of capital punishment (i.e. “deterrence of crime”) outweighs the risk that innocent people may be wrongly convicted. While those opposed to capital punishment would argue, that even one life lost to wrongful conviction is one too many, and that the risk of “wrongful exoneration” is insignificant compared to the risk of wrongful execution.

Regardless of one’s personal beliefs about capital punishment, it seems prudent that if there are ways to reduce wrongful conviction cases, we should be taking steps toward doing so. The authors of this study provide several thoughts on how to reduce false confessions, which would in turn, hopefully reduce the amount of wrongful convictions.

The most significant reform they suggest is electronic recording of all interrogations/confessions. There are currently 500 jurisdictions that mandate recording of the interrogation process. This reform has already proven to be successful for both innocent suspects and police departments (less accusations of police coercion, less use of illegal means to secure confessions, etc.).

The authors further suggest that a reform of interrogation practices occur, such as limiting interrogation time, preventing false evidence  from being used (i.e. stating that an eyewitness reported seeing the suspect at the scene of the crime), and reducing the use of minimization tactics (promises of reduced sentencing).

Finally, the last suggestion they make to prevent false confessions is to make efforts to protect vulnerable populations throughout the interrogation process. Juveniles, individuals with intellectual impairments, and individuals with mental illness are especially susceptible to giving false confessions. The authors suggest that when police question these individuals, that an attorney presence be mandatory, and that the interrogator be trained in dealing with these vulnerable populations so as to limit manipulation of a confession.

Earl Washington and Eddie Joe Lloyd are just two examples of how individuals with cognitive impairments and/or mental illness can become wrongfully convicted after a false confession. After reading their stories, I can certainly side with Kassin, et al., in the need for reform of the interrogation process. However, I can see how the use of certain interrogation techniques by law enforcement have also had a hand in getting true criminals off the streets.

There has to be a balance, and when human lives and freedom are at stake, supporting humane treatment seems to be the best practice. I’m sure there are strong reasons that people have to support harsher interrogation techniques with criminal suspects, and I’d love to hear your comments on this topic.


Kassin, S.M., Drizin, S.A., Grisso, T., Gudjonsson, G.H., Leo, R.A., & Redlich, A.D. (2010). Police-induced confessions: Risk factors and recommendations. Law and Human Behavior, 34, 3-38.

False Confessions: Can Psychological Theories Improve Interrogation Techniques?

Kelly McAleer, Psy.D.

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APA Reference
McAleer, K. (2019). False Confessions: Can Psychological Theories Improve Interrogation Techniques?. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 2, 2020, from


Last updated: 27 Mar 2019
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